Saddam Hussein’s Former Palace in Basra Is Opening as a Museum in September

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in April, 2016. 

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“Iraq’s newest and most ambitious museum,” reports National Geographic, happens to be opening in September. It also happens to be a palace formerly belonging to Saddam Hussein. If that sounds like an awkward repurposing job, the article underscores the tensions therein from the beginning: it begins with the owner of the construction company overseeing the project fretting over the executed leader’s name remaining etched into an elaborate wooden part of the building’s façade — something he says politicians attending the dedication of the museum won’t be thrilled about.

The museum is one of the first to open in the war-torn, partially ISIS-overtaken country in decades, and is part of an initiative to bring cultural import and revitalization to the southern port city of Basra — a city that, amidst national turmoil, The Independent explains, has also experienced a surge in violence as security forces have been redeployed to fight ISIS elsewhere in the country.

Despite this, an influx of people in the oil industry — as well as people migrating to the more politically stable South — have made for steps towards making the city a cultural hub. The Basra government itself is spending $3 million on the museum — proposed by director of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage for Basra, Qahtan al-Abeed following British departure from the occupied palace. Another half-million is being funded by a British charity (who allegedly earned their money predominantly from oil businesses.) Renovations include repairs from car bombings and the proposed installation of steel doors to prevent looting.

With curatorial assistance provided by the British museum, the revamped dictator’s palace will open as a museum, if all goes well, in September 2016, (news of the project has been buzzing, however, for years), and will hold artifacts from the Sumer through the Islamic periods of the country’s history, ending in 1800 AD. Most of the artifacts are being recuperated from Baghdad, where they were stored once the former Basra Museum was looted during the Gulf War and subsequently deemed unfit to be a museum. (Many of the artifacts were then looted in 2003 in Baghdad – but those that remain are returning to the city and its new museum.)

“We want a very modern museum that does more than display objects,” al-Abeed said to National Geographic. “We want to bring in people for all kinds of art and cultural activities, including training courses and professional meetings.”